He splits his days between normal life as just another student sitting in class with his fellow sixth-graders, and one as an educator, teaching the first and second graders at his school.
Azaz, a small Syrian city near the Turkish border, has in recent weeks been the site of regime strikes and rebel infighting as extremists fought to wrench it from rebel control. With the violence, the younger members of Azaz’s society, like Hazem, have taken on new, more adult roles.
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Hazem and his family fled Aleppo, Syria’s former commercial hub, when rebels seized control of their neighborhood in the summer of 2012. The daily threat of regime bombardments made the risk too great to justify staying. Hazem had just completed fifth grade when his family resettled in Azaz, in the safer northern climes of Aleppo province.
According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, there are 5.1 million such Syrians displaced by the conflict.
When Hazem arrived in Azaz, no school was left standing. Academics have come to a standstill in rebel-held areas over the past two years, as schools have fallen prey to military air raids, shelling and burglary, their classrooms often stripped of computers.
A UNICEF survey said that 2.5 million children have not received any form of education since the conflict militarized. The Azaz City Council and local activists, attempting to combat the statistics, rehabbed and refurbished one of the old school buildings, allowing students to return to class last month.
In his new city, Hazem eagerly sat for his placement exams, impressing teachers with his academic capability. Cities across Syria are left with a shortage of teachers. Azaz’s administrators, running out of options, experimented by inviting the 13-year-old to teach classes of his own.
Hazem’s father initially rejected the idea, for fear it would hurt his son’s academic performance. But the school persuaded him.
Hazem was assigned two sessions per day, teaching mathematics and reading, subjects he had mastered, to first and second graders. The adult educators believed those would be the easiest and most suitable subjects for a child his age to teach.
Hazem says he is working to find a balance between lesson preparation and his own studies. His does not end at school, as he also tutors his younger sister at home. Hazem says he views his students as siblings.
His biggest challenge is controlling large classes of young children. The lack of functioning schools has resulted in 50-student classrooms, posing a challenge for any teacher, let alone a 13-year-old boy. Hazem said he always “acts kindly and wisely with everyone.” He reports troublemakers to the administration, who then intervene.
“Despite these problems, I’m happy with the perks I get from this job,” he said, smiling.
Teachers allow Hazem to take his breaks in their faculty room and offer him sandwiches and tea, which he said makes him feel like part of the team. They respectfully refer to Hazem as their colleague.
Administrators said they had confidence in Hazem, who had demonstrated teaching skills beyond his years, and they noticed the students were more comfortable learning from someone closer to their own age. They also said the young-teacher pilot program was worth studying, to better understand how it might be formalized and implemented throughout Syria.